Corona Research Projects & African Cooperations

Therapeutic studies on novel coronavirus

Since the beginning of April 2020, several studies have been initiated in cooperation between BNITM and the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) on therapeutic approaches for patients who have been infected with the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). For these studies we can still offer participation to patients with following criteria:   
•    Respiratory symptoms or fever 
•    Detection of SARS-CoV-2 in throat swab within the last 5 days 
•    Age ≥ 18 years, not pregnant 
•    Consent to participate in a therapy study 

If you are interested in participating in the study on possible therapy options, please call 0157 336 598 32 (Dr. med. Benno Kreuels, Deputy Director of the Study). Here you will receive more detailed information. 


Expansion of diagnostics and sequencing capacity for SARS-CoV-2

An essential component for the control and clinical management of the spreading COVID19 epidemic is the availability of reliable diagnostics with sufficient capacity for the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. BNITM reacted very early to the upcomming epidemic in China and was the first laboratory in Hamburg that established the corresponding molecular diagnostics. In the meantime, a ready-to-use real-time PCR kit has been developed in cooperation with our partner Altona diagnostics©, which enables the detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA with high sensitivity. In order to equip the diagnostic laboratory of the BNITM for the expected large number of clinical samples and to perform state-of-the-art virus analyses, the diagnostic and sequencing capacity at the BNITM was expanded (suported by the Federal Ministry of Health).

Study coordination: Prof. Egbert Tannich

Test development for the detection of serum antibodies against SARS-CoV-2

The BNITM-staff has developed a patented test procedure with which serum antibodies against various pathogens can be detected with high sensitivity and specificity. This procedure is constantly being developed to detect IgM and IgG antibodies against the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 in high-throughput serum of patients using a ready-to-use ELISA test.

Project coordination: Prof. Egbert Tannich

Mobile laboratories expand test capacities in Germany and abroad

The Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM) coordinates the European Mobile Laboratories (EMLab) which are now providing on-site support for SARS-COV-2 diagnostics in the current pandemic. The EMLabs have already been successfully used for other outbreaks of infectious diseases, like for example the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
The employees of the mobile laboratories have been registered as partners of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Emergency Response System.
The provision of EMLab's laboratory units ready for use in case of epidemics or pandemics is financed by the Federal Ministry of Health (BMG) within the Global Health Protection Programme (GHPP).

Mission on the Island of Lesbos:
The BNITM mobile laboratory has been sent to Lesbos upon request of the Greek authorities as part of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network“ (GOARN) and the WHO. Laboratory specialists from BNITM, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and other institutions give support to the national authorities in Greece in increasing the testing of COVID-19 for patients and their contacts and do also provide treatment of other diseases. The mission in the newly built refugee camp in Kara Tepe on the island of Lesbos in Greece will be financially supported by the WHO Regional Office for Europe.

Get more information from our press release of 20th October 2020

Mission in Weiden, Upper Palatinate: On 25th March the BNITM received an urgent request from the city of Weiden to support the SARS-COV-2 diagnostics at Weiden Hospital. BNITM laboratory specialists tested numerous patient samples every day and trained the hospital staff. The costs for this mission in Weiden were borne by the city of Weiden and the Counties of Neustadt an der Waldnaab and Tirschenreuth.

Get more information from our press release of 23th April 2020

Project coordinator: Prof. Stephan Günther (Virology)

Studying the function of SARS-CoV-2 specific CD8+ T cells

Whereas virus-specific antibodies can prevent infection of cells CD8+ T cells are important to clear cells that are already infected due to their cytotoxic properties. Thus an efficient immune response relies on antibodies and cytotoxic CD8+ T cells. However, an overwhelming response of CD8+ T cells might harm virus infected tissue and often has detrimental effects. Therefor T cell function is tightly regulated and several mechanisms exist to reduce the inflammatory properties of T cells. These mechanisms can be exploited by viruses to escape the immune response. This phenomenon is called T cell exhaustion, which is mainly triggered by so called checkpoint-inhibitors. These are molecules like PD-1, LAG-3 and TIM-3, which are induced by a strong inflammatory environment and persisting antigen. These molecules bind to ligands expressed on inflamed tissue and dampen T cell function. This is limiting inflammation but might prevent fast and efficient clearance of virus-infected cells.Very recent data suggest that patients suffering from SARS-CoV-2 display a strong decrease of CD8+ T cells in blood and the decrease can be inversely correlated with disease severity. Our first data suggest that CD8+ T cells from patients with Covid-19 display a strong induction of several checkpoint-inhibitors on CD8+ T cells declining after viral clearance. We therefore are aiming to phenotype the expression of checkpoint inhibitors on virus-specific CD8+ T cells and study how these molecules restrict T cell function. Furthermore we would like to measure the number and function of virus-specific CD8+ T cells over time to study if these cells persists after infection and establish an efficient memory that may protect in synergy with antibodies from reinfection.

Study coordination: PD Dr. Thomas Jacobs (Working group Jacobs)

Identification of compounds with antiviral activity (CTS-COV-2)

The project aims to identify potential drug candidates against COVID-19 using a novel X-ray crystallographic screening approach. Thousands of approved or pre-approved therapeutics in humans, which can be immediately available for preclinical and clinical trials, will be employed to search for hits against several targets relevant for the lifecycle of SARS-CoV-2. Within the multidisciplinary consortia, the BNITM will evaluate the in vitro antiviral activity of X-ray hits against the virus and investigate the on-/off- target effect of selected compounds.

Project coordinator: Yaiza Fernández-García (Virology Department)


IVADAC is a joint project (consortium) with the Fraunhofer IME ScreeningPort, working in the field of pharmaceutical drug discovery. At BNITM we are planning to establish different mouse infection models to evaluate the in vivo efficacy of the newly identified IME drugs against SARS-CoV-2. These include a mouse model of the human immune system (HIS-NSG-A2) and a model expressing human ACE2 - the entry receptor for many corona viruses such as SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. In addition, we will use a comprehensive data analysis to identify promising new drug combinations. After in vitro validation, these drug combinations will in turn be evaluated in our in vivo models.

Study coordinator: Estefania Rodríguez-Burgos (Virology Department)


In this new project we will establish two different humanized mice as models for SARS-CoV-2 infections. The first model is based on the transplantation of human hematopoietic stem cells. We had already isolated these cells from cord blood for both adenovirus and Ebola virus infection models. We will use this model to study the pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. The second mouse model will be produced by transplanting peripheral blood lymphocytes from young and older adults. In this way, we will be able to study the role of the immune system in COVID-19 disease.

Study coordinator: Estefania Rodríguez-Burgos (Virology Department)

Support for increasing SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic capacity in Africa

Reliable and rapid diagnostics is crucial for the clinical management of patients with COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic which is also spreading in Africa. Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa laboratory capacities for the diagnosis of infectious diseases often do not exist. Therefore, it is essential that hospital laboratories – often even laboratories in national and regional diagnostic centers – are well equipped. Equipment includes both the devices and the laboratories themselves. Training and education of laboratory personnel concerning preparation, performance and interpretation of the necessary methods is of significant importance. This requires close collaboration with institutions where diagnostic laboratories are established and accredited.

For this reason, reliable molecular diagnostics for SARS-CoV-2 shall be established at eight institutions in 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Madagascar, Nigeria and Tanzania) which have been collaborating with the BNITM for many years. The mentioned institutions have facilities which are suitable for the implementation of Coronavirus-diagnostics. There shall be necessary equipment and laboratory personnel and/or their trainers shall attend training.

Project coordination: Prof. Dr. Jürgen May, Prof. Stephan Günther, Prof. Michael Ramharter

Funding: Federal Ministry of Health (BMG)

Support for increasing SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic capacity in mobile laboratories in the East African Community (EAC)

New emerging infectious diseases with epidemic potential in sub-Saharan Africa present a massive burden on public health and the socio-economic situation. Recent outbreaks such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa or the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic show the need for preparedness and rapid response to such outbreaks. In cooperation with the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM), the East African Community (EAC) is implementing a project financed by the German Government through the KfW Development Bank which aims to build up a sustainable mobile laboratory infrastructure in East Africa. This project is to use a total of nine mobile laboratories within the EAC-partner states Uganda, Tanzania, Kenia, Burundi, Ruanda and South Sudan. In the participating countries mechanisms for solid diagnostics- and surveillance supporting systems will be introduced to enable a rapid cross-border response to disease epidemics.

BNITM will provide technical advice for the implementation of mobile laboratories and build up the regional capacity for the operation of those laboratories through structured training phases. In addition, molecular diagnostics for SARS-CoV-2 shall now be established in eight institutions in 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Madagascar, Nigeria and Tanzania).

Project coordination: Prof. Dr. Jürgen May

Funding: Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), (KfW)

SeroCoV Afrika: Cross-sectional study to survey SARS-CoV-2 seroprevalence

In sub-Saharan Africa, important epidemiological parameters and infection dynamics of SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 remain largely unknown. For example, there is no population-based estimate of seroprevalence. Also, no risk groups have been characterised so far.

Previous projections were that up to 70 million Africans would be infected with SARS-COV-2 by June 2020 and that more than 3 million would die. Instead, "only" 2.1 million COVID-19 infections and just under 50,000 deaths were recorded - on a continent with 1.3 billion people. However, testing facilities and financial resources are limited, and there is too little expertise. It is possible that the number of cases is actually higher.

In addition, the population is much younger than in industrialised countries. This could have led to a milder course of the pandemic on the continent: There were fewer severe cases and deaths. However, the actual proportion of infected people, including those who had no symptoms or did not need medical treatment, is still unknown.

Serological tests that identify antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 allow conclusions to be drawn about acquired immunity resulting from past exposure to the virus. Seroprevalence, i.e. the presence of these antibodies, can provide important information on the "level of infection" of the respective country and support planned vaccination campaigns. In this project, we determine the seroprevalence in three African countries (Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Madagascar). We also collect data on the protective measures prescribed and implemented, and we calculate the economic consequences of Corona-related lockdown.

Scientific lead: Nicole Gilberger (Struck)

Contributing scientists: Eva Lorenz, Aurélia Souares, Christina Deschermeier, Ben Rushton.
Team Germany: Jenny Kettenbeil, Wibke Loag, Christa Ehmen, Dino Schachten, Anna Ginsbach, Sayed Alhashimi.

Team Ghana: John Amuasi, Anthony Afum-Adjei Awuah, Christian Obirikorang, Oumou Maiga-Ascofaré, Kwaku Duah, Nana Almoustapha, Evans Ahadu

Team Burkina: Ali Sié, Boubacar Coulibaly, Thierry Ouedraogo, Valentin Boudo 

Team Madagaskar: Daniela Fusco, Rivo Rakotoarivelo, Dominik Benke, Yannick Heppner, Raphael Rakotozandrindrainy, Zaraniaina Tahiry Rasolojaona, Leonard Gunga, Jeanmarc Kutz

Seroprevalence and incidence of SARS-CoV-2 in BNITM staff

Newly available serological tests can detect IgG antibodies against the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. For this purpose, serum samples are tested in the Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). To confirm the results, an additional immunofluorescence test (IFT) is implemented.

The aim of this study is to investigate the development of seropositivity and seroconversion in the staff of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine during the pandemic. This is done by measuring the presence of IgG antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in a cross-sectional view and by subsequent repeated testing of the same persons to determine the proportion of asymptomatic and sub-clinical infections and to compare them between staff groups in consideration of their working conditions and risk factors. Moreover, the well characterized serum samples shall be used for validation of further antibody tests.

Project coordination: Maike Lamshöft

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Dr. Eleonora Schönherr

Scientific Coordinator

Tel.: +49 40 42818-269

Fax: +49 40 42818-265